The guitar was originally an instrument meant to grace both the player and the audience with beautiful sounds and a healthy atmosphere. However, as virtuosos and talented musicians came to the scene, it quickly evolved to also be a tool of competitiveness, which made clear distinctions between enthusiasts, hobbyists, and pros. Musicians and performers all over the globe are, to this day, debating who the fastest, most accurate, and most resourceful guitarists are. Swing and funk musicians are observed through the scope of groove; metalheads through shredding; rock and blues guitarists through some combination of fines and tone, plus speed and technicality. The best in all categories had something in common though – soulfulness and feel.
Over the years the criteria for “hardest songs to play” has shifted as new players have come along. Shredders could play faster than anyone else, but most couldn’t hold a vibrato to save their life. Classically-trained musicians could play in any tempo or key, but most would argue that they lacked the human element of rock, jazz, and swing musicians. Nowadays, the music industry is comprised of hundreds of genres, and the competition is obviously stiffer than ever. The criteria for determining the best guitarist and hardest guitar song combines all of the aforementioned elements, yet allowing genre-specific fans and musicians to stick to their guns should they want to.
Today we’re going to talk about the most complex, most intricate, and most skill-demanding tracks by the world’s most famous musicians, performers, guitarists, and instrumentalists without any specific order, for the sake of diversity and eclecticism.
List of the Hardest Songs to Play on Guitar
1. Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson
Cliffs of Dover is a remarkably well-written rock song that combines beautiful melodies, stunningly unique leads, and multiple heartfelt solos. The fact that the song is more than ten minutes long while there’s very little repetition to talk about will challenge the endurance of even the most seasoned guitar players.
In terms of technique, Eric hammers, pulls, slides, palm-mutes, and bends throughout the entire song; saying it’s a challenging track from a note-for-note perspective would be a massive understatement. However, Cliffs of Dover isn’t drifting too far apart from the classic rock scales, which makes it a bit easier to memorize than most fusion jazz and metal tracks.
2. Country Guitar by Phil Baugh
Even though shredding and fast-paced soloing were popularized through hard rock and heavy metal, it was the country folk that actually pioneered these playstyles. Phil Baugh’s was one of the first double-neck guitar players that had set the bar ridiculously high for several generations that came after, and one of his most intricate pieces is none other than Country Guitar.
Rapid finger action isn’t the only prerequisite to follow through the myriad of notes he’s pulling off; he’s alternating between downstroke picking, fingerstyle playing, slide, and whammy bar both on rhythm and solo sections.
Country Guitar is a complex piece of work from the beginning to the very end, with the majority of notes being in the upper register. The song, however, features a couple of breaks that are meant to help guitarists mentally prepare for the sonic hailstorm that succeeds each bridge.
3. Round Midnight by Wes Montgomery
In contrast to shreddy Country Guitar and a marathon of notes that is Cliffs of Dover, Wes Montgomery’s Round Midnight is a slow jazz song that requires more in terms of feel than technique.
Its complexity doesn’t lie in the thousands of notes played in a couple of seconds. It requires a set of accurate, primed, and ready fingers that can respond to the numerous changes in tempo and key. However, most jazz songs would fit such a description.
Round Midnight is one of the hardest songs on guitar navigating, the fretboard of a guitar while plucking the strings fingerstyle. There aren’t too many single notes to speak of, so be prepared to embark on an 8-minute journey of playing pretty much every chord in the book.
4. YYZ by Rush
Genre: Progressive Rock
Rush’s YYZ is often cited as one of the most all-encompassing pieces of progressive music. It was clearly light years ahead of its time, and the fact that it was composed four decades ago speaks volumes about this group’s technical proficiency and virtuosity.
YYZ features odd time signatures, relatively unusual scales for rock music, and a type of guitar playing that most musicians who aren’t die-hard fans of Rush may find as unusual, to say the very least.
It would be fair to say that this is also a very experimental song that sports influences from groove, R&B, swing, with hints of oriental and even reggae, especially in the second half.
Basically, YYZ may not be the fastest song on the list, but its unpredictability and unobvious choices of chord progressions make it a fairly difficult one to master.
5. Frettin’ Fingers by Jimmy Bryant & Speedy West
If Frettin’ Fingers was played through a stack of Marshalls and a distorted Ibanez, it would easily be one of the grittiest heavy metal songs of the past millennium. The only ties this song has with bluegrass or country music is the groovy rhythmic section, most notably the upbeat bass.
Speedy is shredding at lightning speed throughout this 2-minute medley, but what makes this song so far removed from this genre is the choice of notes he is playing alongside his partner.
Country guitar players who aren’t well versed in the minor pentatonic scale will have a difficult time pulling off the introduction solo; knowing a thing or two about chromatic scales will certainly help you dial into the bridges between the solos and piano sections.
6. The Black Page #1 by Frank Zappa
Genre: Avant Garde Rock
Sight readers tend to misjudge Zappa’s Black Page; the 60 beats-per-minute mark gives off the impression that it’s at best an advanced-level guitar song, certainly not one of the hardest there ever was.
However, Frank was famous for a myriad of reasons, one of which is the fact that he toyed around with time signatures, tempo changes, and more importantly, he utilized the characteristics of numerous music genres without ever sticking to one in particular for more than a couple of notes.
The Black Page is a compositional piece more than an actual song, and the only way to learn how to play it on a guitar is to break it down into dozens of little pieces whenever a time signature change happens. The main reason why it’s among the most delicate pieces in guitar history is that there are quite a few of them.
7. Polaris by Megadeth
Genre: Heavy Metal
The tone, style, and grit of Rust in Peace Polaris are executed in the classic Megadeth fashion, and despite it being one of the most popular songs ever composed by these Bay Area Big Four legends, it’s still an oddball when compared to most of their earlier works.
The riffs that comprise the verses are slow, sludgy, and heavy, but they require accurate shifts between power chords and single-note vibratos while the solos are as hard as most fans would imagine.
Polaris pretty much repeats itself twice before it takes a completely different form, gaining in speed and becoming a completely different beast riff-wise. In a nutshell, this isn’t the fastest, nor the most intricate Megadeth song, but the degree of accuracy it demands is on a completely different level in comparison to the rest of their catalog.
8. Django by Joe Pass
Jazz is the very definition of ‘hard, complex music’; the one genre that is almost exclusive to classically trained musicians who can recognize different sonic shapes, figures, and modes rather than just figuring out which scales are dominant in a particular song.
Joe Pass’s Django is a melodic, to some degree even a nostalgic tune that seamlessly transitions between somber and cheerful leads, right before it hits off into a solo that keeps building and building until it teases even the most proficient of shredders.
The interlude is slow, steady, and uniquely beautiful. However, it lasts barely a minute, right before the infamous solo starts to rumble. The numerous, and very unobvious pauses and syncope uses are the main reasons why Django is not to be underestimated.
9. Through the Fire and Flames by DragonForce
Genre: Power Metal
Through the Fire and Flames was widely renowned by power metal fans before the song reached a global mainstream audience when it was featured on the video game Guitar Hero 3. It was due to the latter that it was quickly declared as one of the hardest metal songs a guitarist could want to try playing.
The sheer fact that it has multiple harmonized supersonic solos was enough for it to retain its prime spot on the charts where complexity was the main criteria for more than a decade. However, most players who start practicing it realize that it’s ridiculously fast from start to finish, which only adds to the level of difficulty.
Finally, guitar nerds and perfectionists who may have learned it note for note still claim that they haven’t mastered it in its entirety. Namely, Herman Li is famously using a variety of unique whammy bar techniques, which can’t be copied or mimicked without specific gear and, obviously, his skill.
10. Birds of Fire by Mahavishnu Orchestra
Genre: Fusion Jazz
What separates Mahavishnu Orchestra from other music groups and ensembles is that everyone perceives their music differently. The palette of sounds they used to paint Birds of Fire is vast and vivid, and the first of many steps in learning this particular track would be to find those colors on a guitar.
In a typical fusion jazz fashion, Birds of Fire utilize intricate, but very deliberate chord changes and some of the most atypical time signatures, that are odd even by jazz standards.
The solos in this song share tinges of semblance with hard rock solos, more so than actual jazz due to the heavily overdriven guitars and a ton of shredding. Even so, temporal changes and characteristics of this song alone are enough to declare it ‘astonishingly complex’.
11. Forbidden City by Marty Friedman
Genre: Progressive Metal
Even before joining Megadeth, Marty had quite a career in the music industry, which he only reinforced after leaving.
Forbidden City is one of the most all-encompassing songs on his debut album Dragon’s Kiss that showcases his remarkable connection to the guitar, and most importantly, an authentic touch in his vibrato and slides.
This particular song could fit almost any heavy music genre, from neoclassical, over thrash, to Avant Garde.
Should you want to try and learn how to play it, you will find yourself in numerous musical landscapes, and such unpredictability is the second reason why it’s so hard to master. The first is, obviously, Marty’s nearly unparalleled speed paired with surgical accuracy.
12. Fracture by King Crimson
Genre: Progressive Rock
Robert Fripp has declared Fracture to be one of the most demanding songs he composed for King Crimson. It goes without saying that if the legend himself regards it as a complex song, most mortal guitar players should know better than to underestimate it.
Interestingly enough, Fracture starts off slow and in an atmospheric environment. At the beginning of the second fifth of the song, Fripp completely changes the tone of the song, after which it evolves into a three-minute jazzy shred.
Fracture is an excellent example of a song that requires total control over the instrument. The tones that Robert plays with, the way he attacks the instrument, and his unbelievable speed are just some of the reasons why maybe a handful of players are capable of covering a portion of Fracture.
13. Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov
Often used as a reference point for determining the world’s fastest guitar shredder, Flight of the Bumblebee will challenge your dexterity in the way that maybe a handful of other songs would.
Originally, this composition was arranged with various stringed instruments, but that didn’t stop guitarists from trying to play it.
Essentially, most classical compositions require months of practice by the world’s most renowned musicians, so it’s safe to say everyone from casual hobbyists to most determined and talented guitar players would need at least that much before their fingers could match the lightning speed of the Flight of the Bumblebee.
14. Just Friends by Pat Martino
A fair share of funk sensibilities can be heard in Just Friends. Pat jumps the fretboard at least a couple of times over even before the first break, and the gorgeous Hammond organ in the background complements it perfectly.
What makes Just Friends one of the more complex jazz pieces is that it was composed for a guitar player that can navigate the fretboard while completely separated from the rest of the group.
Learning this song by ear will certainly be a challenge, as each instrument plays a different role at a different time and speed. By the time you learn the arrangements, you will also probably realize that Pat’s solos are far more intricate than they may seem.
15. Eruption by Eddie Van Halen
Genre: Rock/Heavy Metal
The late Edward Van Halen is and was the most inventive and skillful musician in the heavier genres of music. His Eruption solo had turned thousands and thousands of professional artists onto guitar, and quite obviously so, given that it was the prototype for future generations of shredders.
Whatever technique he didn’t invent, Eddie improved. Eruption showcases his unique style of triple-finger tapping, distinct sliding, frequent divebombs, and absurdly fast and accurate arpeggios and sweep picking.
It’s one of the few songs in metal history that is almost downright impossible to learn note for note, although its beautiful melodies should be a reason enough to give it a shot.
16. Symptom of the Universe by Black Sabbath
Genre: Heavy Metal
The Symptom of the Universe is, essentially, not a ridiculously hard song. Most of the riffs are pretty easy to play, although the solo section is decently challenging. Nailing Iommi’s exquisite tone and feel are the two most difficult things about this song.
First and foremost, most of the early Sabbath songs were composed in C# Standard. If you’re accustomed to playing in E on low action, you may have some difficulties playing the simplest of Symptom riffs, not to mention the solo sections.
Secondly, the fastest parts are in the Locrian mode, which is not the kind of setting most modern guitarists are too familiar with. Despite its straightforward sound and beat, Symptom of the universe is a very unusual song playing-wise.
17. Little Wing by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Genre: Psychedelic Rock
Even decades after Axis came out, fans are still stitching all manners of epithets to this amazing piece of work. We can say it’s jazz, swing, influences of rock that can be heard on pretty much every track, and none other than Little Wing integrates all of these genres so seamlessly and organically.
Oddly enough, it’s one of the slower-paced songs off of Bold as Love, but the total lack of repetition and constant thematical changes in this six-minute solo make it fairly challenging.
Song structure aside, Jimi’s unique attack is what makes it so unapproachable. Although there are bits and pieces of shredding here and there, you’ll need the original Dunlop CryBaby and a solid Strat if you’re to come even close to his tone.
18. Ghost of Perdition by Opeth
Genre: Progressive/Death Metal
Michael Akerfeldt is a musical and lyrical genius that has changed the landscape of progressive metal by adding brutal vocals and super-heavy riffs; Ghost of Perdition features haunting melodies, beautiful licks, heavily distorted chords, acoustic parts, and absolutely gorgeous solos, all of which showcase Opeth’s combined talents.
Ghost of Perdition doesn’t linger on any lick for longer than necessary, and after each bridge comes a part that belongs to a completely different sonic spectrum. Being able to switch between holding the groove and executing riffs in odd time signatures is a must if you want to try your hand at this song.
The second part is arguably even more challenging, which is Michael’s tone. Opeth are masters of using relatively straightforward gear to its fullest potential, so playing this song note-for-note may not sound the same as the original recording.
19. Painters of the Tempest by Ne Obliviscaris
Genre: Progressive Metal
It’s fairly common to see (and hear) classical compositions that are crafted in movements, but it’s almost unheard for a metal band to dive in those waters.
Australian Ne Obliviscaris is famous among prog metal lovers for blending several songs with a singular theme that are spread across different movements. Such would be Painters of the Tempest, which is comprised of Wyrmholes, Triptych Lux, Cynosure, Curator, and Reveries from the Stained Glass Womb.
The first movement is essentially an intro that features a violin and piano, so as a guitar player you can skip it. Triptych Lux hits off with rapid guitar leads, transitioning between supersonic alternate picking and stop-action octaves and idiosyncratic diminished chords.
Each following movement features at least one solo that is accompanied by both piano and violin; the sheer length of this marvelous piece is a test of endurance while the skill requirements for even the most basic of verses are absurdly massive.
20. Dance of Eternity by Dream Theater
Genre: Progressive metal/Rock
There are odd time signatures, and then there’s Dance of Eternity. One of the world’s most famous bands comprised of Berkeley college of music-trained performers is renowned for composing nearly unplayable songs, and this one, in particular, will challenge everything a guitarist may think they know about playing.
Aside from 16-bar solos and 13/8 signatures, aside from astonishingly fast-paced solos and unique groups of notes that don’t even remotely resemble traditional chords, this song is arguably the pinnacle of complexity as far as guitar tunes are in question.
A sharp mind that can memorize the changes in tact that are occurring on pretty much every second bar, so you it wouldn’t be cheating if you wanted to resort to tabs; it’s a six-minute maelstrom of non-repetitive licks and solos, and it’s easily among the hardest guitar songs in Dream Theater’s catalog.
21. Scorned by Vital Remains
Genre: Extreme Death Metal
Vital Remains is a black sheep in the death metal family due to their melodic sensibilities. The polarities between which they transition are unlike anything you’ll hear in any other music genre, as they jump from the grittiest, heaviest blast-beat accompanied riffs to almost neoclassical solos, and finally to harmonized shredding.
Scorned showcases Dave Suzuki’s unbridled talent and virtuosity as even the bridges between his solos are exceptionally fast and intricate. The verses are just as fast while the choruses offer a few brief moments of respite before the song kicks off into yet another solo.
Another reason why Scorned is far removed from typical death metal tunes is that it lasts nearly nine minutes. It’s certainly a challenging song to play in the comfort of a bedroom while it’s an incredibly fatiguing track to try in a live setting, be it rehearsal or a gig.
22. Blues for Willarene by Grant Green
The swingy tip-toe fashion of Grant’s Blues for Willarene betrays its jazz nature. Though it’s a highly atmospheric tune due to the groovy bass and drums, the plethora of hammer-ons and pull-offs in the solo sections may intimidate even the most proficient of classically-trained musicians.
Veteran jazz cats may not find it as challenging, as it’s an excellent representation of what this genre of music is about. If you manage to see the shapes and figures Grant is painting as he’s playing, the song falls down a step on the ladder of difficulty.
Even so, it’s a fairly long tune with a decent amount of relatively unpredictable notes and chords, so you may want to try it with a score on your first pass.
23. Satch Boogie by Joe Satriani
Satch Boogie is a well-written instrumental rock track that borders with perfectly executed improvisation. There’s plenty of tapping and divebombs, and a galore of octave slides to test your dexterity, but there’s not a bar of repetition until the very tail end of the song.
It’s not as complex as Country Guitar or as intricate as Forbidden City, or so one would think after falling into its dandy groove. Satch Boogie is a fairly advanced rock track that requires excellent timing and well-polished bending chops, as well as a fast & steady fretting hand.
24. Gunslinger’s Glory by Dead South
Although this amazing group mainly relied on banjos to record this song, Gunslinger’s Glory can be translated onto acoustic and electric guitars seamlessly.
It’s one of the few tracks on the list that do not feature any solos, and what makes it so hard to play is the fact that you’ll need to be at least remotely acquainted with fingerstyle and slide guitar playing techniques.
The song itself is fairly fast, and the guitar is playing double-time almost from start to finish. Aside from a huge degree of accuracy in the fretting hand, Gunslinger’s Glory demands a stable picking hand that can multitask between picking and plucking on the fly.
Fortunately, the parts often repeat, and the bridges and choruses should not pose too much of a problem. This song features a couple of tempo changes, but it’s in the same key and tact all the way through; it’s more than eight minutes long, though, so it will challenge your playing stability and memory at the same time.
25. Speed Kills & No Boundaries by Michael Angelo Batio
Genre: Heavy Metal
Michael Angelo Batio is one of the most renowned Chicago guitar legends that is credited for developing his famous over-under technique. Among his peers he’s considered as one of the fastest metal shredders alive, and his vast knowledge of classical music theory allowed him to gear up his arsenal of scales and modes to the teeth.
Just like its name suggests, Speed Kills is arguably the fastest course of sweep picking. The majority of the song is locked in the upper section of the fretboard with very little breathing room, but luckily, guitarists will have a tact of pause between Speed Kills transitions to No Boundaries.
The second ‘movement’ of Batio’s shredding starts off a tad slower, although it picks the tempo up only a few moments later. Aside from sweeps and arpeggios, Michael also starts tapping at a ridiculous speed before he flips the overdrive switch and leaps into his over-under technique.
Whoever manages to tackle Speed Kills will invariably notice that their picking speed has improved as collateral, although No Boundaries is a slightly different story.
The second act is incomparably more difficult (and longer) than the first, and since these two are considered parts of a singular composition, this may be the most difficult guitar performance in the realm of heavy metal.
26. I by Meshuggah
While modern-day djent bands may give off the impression that their tracks are as simple as beating on the open E string until it pops, the godfathers of this genre would beg to differ. Meshuggah is a unique band on all points, and I is one of their most complex guitar-driven songs to date.
As usual, expect heavy changes in terms of time signatures, a heavily dropped tuning on super thick-gauge strings, an abundance of breakdowns accompanied by harmonized solos, and twenty minutes of non-repetitive licks.
Storing the changing riffs in your memory banks may be the simplest of challenges this song has in store while picking accuracy may be the hardest one.
Triplets and heavy usage of syncopated notes add another layer to an already difficult song, and the fact that it’s composed on the first handful of frets will probably intimidate most shredders and soloists.
27. Bad Horsie by Steve Vai
Genre: Progressive rock
Steve Vai is unquestionably one of the most talented guitar players of all time. Having been taught by no other than Joe Satriani and playing with the world-famous Frank Zappa ever since he was barely in his early 20s has cemented his career in the upper echelons of the music industry, and Bad Horsie is among his grooviest, funkiest works to date.
This song alternates between heavy riffing and bar chords as far as licks go, but the centerpiece of the song is the gorgeous, idiosyncratic pack of solos. Artificial harmonics and a myriad of ways in which Vai uses his whammy bar make this song far more difficult than most guitar players would imagine.
28. Jordan by Buckethead
Genre: Experimental/New Age
Buckethead is one of a handful of guitar players that have managed to blend electronic colors with the natural timbres of quality guitars in a very organic way.
Jordan starts off with a static-like tone derived from at least a dozen pedals before it transitions into a shreddy, yet very melodic solo.
Now, Buckethead’s bag of tricks is as much of a mystery as the performer himself, so finding his actual tone with regular pieces of gear is almost impossible. Additionally, there are more than a few techniques that are completely unique to him, as can be heard near the end of the solo.
Jordan begins and ends the same way, but other than that, make sure to stretch your fingers for a three-minute course of thundering on the lower strings of your axe.
29. On the Run Again by Yngwie Malmsteen
Genre: Neoclassical/Progressive Metal
Yngwie is arguably one of the few stars that rose with not a double, but a triple LP release (rightfully titled Trilogy). Ever since he came to the scene, he was immediately recognized by both peers and guitar veterans as an extremely talented, sharp-witted guitar virtuoso.
On The Run Again showcases his soloing prowess, as well as an excellent choice of tones and techniques to make them fully bloom. Classic heavy metal tone and impeccable dexterity make On the Run Again one of the most complete tunes in the genre.
30. Breezin’ by George Benson
George Benson’s Breezin’ may not be the fastest, weirdest, or the most intricate jazz tune, but it’s beyond regular definitions of complex mainly because it features several sections of soloing in octaves, which isn’t all too unusual in this particular genre of music.
However, it’s not that often for jazz solo guitar players to jump across the fretboard in bar chords in such a manner. Most of the solo is relatively slow and straightforward, and a handful of parts actually repeat.
The remainder of the song may be a bit hard for most self-taught guitarists, as it features fairly odd chords, such as A13add9, Dmaj9/A, and such.
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